First Woman Executed in the United States

(Frank) And we’re back again. I don’t know, I’ve been in music all my life and seen the Kingston Trio live, they used to do a song it was like, [sings] Hangman, hangman bring a rope, Hangman, hangman bring a rope. (Deb) You are kidding. I remember Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley. (Frank) Yes, of course and anyway. That’s a sick song but anyway. (Deb) It is a pretty sick song. (Frank) The only reason I did that is because you have a story about believe it or not gallows. (Deb) Gallows, yes, I don’t know what it is, I’m into the dark side of life I guess. Its all war and murder and mayhem and everything it’s, yes, that’s pretty much sums up my life. Did you see the movie The Conspirators? (Frank) Yes I did. (Deb) Robin Penn played Mary Surratt and did a fantastic job. Edwin Stanton was played by Kevin Kline, absolutely fantastic. Everybody in this just rose to the occasion. It’s an amazing film, I highly recommend it. What we have is a really interesting connection to the whole conspirators. You know we’ve talked about Boston Corbett and his connection to John Wilkes Booth and the whole Kansas connection before. We’ve got a very interesting connection to Mary Surratt so let’s share that story with you today. The trial of the 19th century began on May 9, 1865. Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated not even a month before. To the disappointment of the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, the guilty party, John Wilkes Booth, had been killed rather than captured. But he was only the tip on the conspiracy. There were others responsible in the plot to overthrow the government. President Andrew Johnson ordered a trial by military commission, as the assassination conspiracy was deemed an act of war. For several weeks, prosecutors revealed the case against the conspirators. Because the defense attorneys were never allowed to meet with their clients, their arguments were weak and easily refuted. The commission began deliberation on June 29. Nearly a week later, they declared all eight defendants guilty. Some, like Dr. Mudd, received prison terms. Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt were sentenced to hang. Workmen quickly erected a scaffold on the lawn of the Old Arsenal Penitentiary. From their cells, the condemned could hear its construction and the slam of the traps as they were tested. At 1:15 on July 7, the four were lead to the gallows, their hands and feet tied, heads covered with hoods, and necks fitted with nooses. Minutes later, they were dead. Despite a desperate last-minute plea to spare her life, Mary Surratt became the first woman executed for a crime in the United States. In 1885, the secretary of the Kansas Historical Society learned that the scaffold was stored at the Old Arsenal in Washington, D.C. He wrote to the Quartermaster’s office to request a piece of it for the collection. The lieutenant who received the letter was happy to comply, as he had spent time as a soldier at Fort Leavenworth and considered himself a Kansan. He sent this fragment. It has been part of the Society’s collection since 1885. Through enlarging photographs and comparing the fragment, it was determined that this fragment held the rope upon which Mary Surratt was hanged.

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